Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London, and her writing revolves around Bengali families in the United States who retain at least some of their non-American identity, but her writing is more American than most fiction by contemporary authors born in this country. Lahiri’s stories are richly textured, written in intelligent yet easy prose, showcasing her incredible skill at encapsulating human emotions through plot events large and small, and her overarching theme of Bengalis feeling adrift in a foreign country and culture seems central to the American experience regardless of the characters’ nation of origin. Her first published work, the short story collection Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and if anything, her second story collection, 2008′s Unaccustomed Earth is even better, more assured with stronger characterization.
The title story, which leads off the collection, is one of the most subtle stories in the book, dealing with Ruma, an Indian mother married to a non-Indian man, whose widowed father comes to visit her in her new home in Seattle. She is still grieving from the sudden loss of her mother, and now must deal with the question of whether to invite her father to stay with her, per Indian (or perhaps Bengali) custom, even though she has never had a close relationship with him and believes her husband is less than thrilled with the idea of having his father-in-law living in their spacious house. Ruma’s father, meanwhile, has begun a quiet affair – so quiet it barely merits the term – with another Bengali woman, also widowed, and does not wish to reveal it to his daughter or to give up his peripatetic new lifestyle. Lahiri allows both characters to narrate the story, creating two distinct voices, moving the story along by magnifying tiny events in their lives during the father’s visit and establishment of a new relationship with his grandson, surpassing anything he ever developed with Ruma. The story’s conclusion is extremely un-Hollywood, yet more effective for its realism.
Unaccustomed Earth closes with a three-part novella titled “Hema and Kaushik,” which returns to the twin perspectives of the collection’s title story by tracking two young Bengalis through three stages of their lives – a brief period in their teen years when Hema’s family housed Kaushik’s on the latter’s return from India to Massachusetts; Kaushik’s difficulty in adjusting to a major change in his family situation while he’s in college; and an unlikely reunion between the two in Rome with the two in their late 30s. The novella is more about Kaushik (the boy) than Hema, with the latter serving more as a lens to examine Kaushik’s character, and how a few major events in his life shape his choices in adulthood, including his inability to grieve and his difficulties in forming lasting relationships with women.
As much as I may praise “Hema and Kaushik,” it wasn’t the star of this particular show. I don’t read many short stories because I often find it hard to get emotionally invested in a character or a plot in ten or twenty thousand words, but “Only Goodness” was easily the most affecting short story I’ve ever read, for personal reasons. The story opens by telling us that “It was Sudha who’d introduced Rahul to alcohol,” a clue to the guilt the sister would later carry for her brother’s alcoholism, even though the addiction and downward spiral was almost certainly inevitable. An uncle with whom I always felt close was a lifelong alcoholic, something I didn’t know until late in my teens, and his periods of recovery never lasted and were punctuated by disappointment and frustration on the part of the rest of his immediate family. I remember too well the phone calls I’d get from him at odd hours in the late 1990s, about some get-rich-quick scheme he’d found or a penny stock on which he wanted my opinion, and the fact that I was not equipped to handle him in those states, or even fully aware of what the calls truly signified. Eventually, I drifted out of contact with him, talking maybe once or twice a year, hearing of him through my parents, until the day in spring training of 2005 when I got another call that he had taken his own life the night before. Rahul lives to see the end of “Only Goodness,” but Lahiri paints an accurate portrait of the devastation a grown child’s alcohol problem can cause and the false hopes and crushing disappointments it can cause, while still giving the reader enough insight into Rahul to feel some empathy, until the climactic event that caps the story.
“A Choice of Accommodation” chronicles the gradual decline of a “mixed” marriage (between an Indian man and a non-Indian woman) by watching the couple over the course of a single day and night at someone else’s wedding; I’ve criticized many writers here for badly-written sex scenes that feel like they were written by teenaged boys, but Lahiri wrote one of the few I’ve ever read that didn’t make me cringe – perhaps it simply needed a woman’s pen – although as the conclusion to this story the device felt a little hackneyed. “Nobody’s Business” is actually told from the perspective of the shy American roommate of an Indian woman on whom he probably has a small crush; he finds out her mysterious boyfriend is having an affair and is left trying to decide whether and how to tell her about it. The story itself works, with a technologically quaint solution, but the constant parade of suitors that the girl, Sang, faces – all men seeking an arranged marriage through her parents – provided a level of exasperating comic relief. The weakest story for me – still above-average if you’re looking for grades – was “Heaven-Hell,” told by an Indian girl about her mother who, trapped in a loveless arranged marriage, develops a crush on a Bengali graduate student who rooms with the family for several months, and even thatt story features a classic Lahiri oh-by-the-way twist at its end.
Interpreter of Maladies was brilliant and worthy of the recognition it received, but I can’t say I was as moved or involved in its stories as I was in those of Unaccustomed Earth, and her ability to create tension in short stories that revolve around emotions rather than action is astounding, reminiscent of the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the novels of Marilynne Robinson, two of the best American writers of the last hundred years. And I think it’s fitting that someone of a non-traditional background should emerge as one of the brightest voices in 21st century American literature, one who speaks to the experiences of an entirely new wave of immigrants who spend much of their lives living in one country while trying to maintain the cultures and traditions of others.
Before Unaccustomed Earth, I read John Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel, the first part of his U.S.A. trilogy. However, it’s not a complete, standalone novel; it weaves together the stories of five people in the U.S. in the late 1910s, but their paths just start to cross near the book’s end and nothing is resolved enough to merit a real review. I’ll write them up when I finish all three parts, which appear as a single entry on a few of the greatest-books lists I follow.
Next up: Dawn Powell’s final novel, The Golden Spur.